Coastal fog at Byron vineyards
So there I am, tasting through a swathe of wines from the US at the grand Toorak home of the US Consul-General (as one does on a Wednesday afternoon) when I overhear a conversation along the lines of: “… and there’s my friend Micha, who’s living over here now. He was George Bush’s personal sommelier and the family’s wine buyer for a while.”
“Well,” thinks I, “Micha’s the man I need to talk to about the wines of the US.” He might also give me an insight into the former president’s drinking habits – whether he’s a Grange or Hill of Grace man, for example.
To think I had initially dismissed the invitation to the wine tasting as spam – it came by email with the subject From The Consul-General Of The United States – who wouldn’t think it was a hoax? A re-read revealed my mistake.
While Australia sends shiploads of wine to the US every year, little of theirs makes it over the Pacific Ocean to Australia. Only 28,000 cases of bottled US wines were imported in the past 12 months. Compare that to the 8 million cases of Yellowtail that are sent in the other direction each year.
So I contacted Micha Ilic, and he was happy to talk about American wines. The wine habits of former president Bush and family will, sadly, have to wait for another time.
Whether it’s a blockbuster zinfandel or pinot noir from Oregon or California, Ilic says US wines are distinctive. He’s also finding his favourite wines are getting easier to track down in Australia.
“My personal favourite is still Domaine Serene from Willamette Valley in Oregon, but the best value for money is definitely La Crema Pinot Noir from Monterey in California,” he says.
“Both are very different in style, but there is one similarity: they are both American and they are hard to compare with Australian or New Zealand pinots.
“When it comes to American wines in Australia, we have not yet seen what they have to offer but, thanks to two specialised wine importers, we are lucky to see some very smart wines coming in.”
Ilic recommends pinotnow.com.au and West Coast Cellars in Perth (08 9446 3565) for tracking down boutique wines from the US, while usawinesdirect.com.au has a big range of American wines that start at less than $20 a bottle.
The zen of zin
One grape, above all, has made its mark in the US: zinfandel.
If the big, boozy supercharged wines of the Barossa are the V8s of wine, “zin” is the NASCAR equivalent.
“Zinfandel in America is an iconic wine, just as shiraz is for Australia,” says Micha Ilic. “Zinfandel can be very overpowering and big in body, fruit weight and alcohol,” he says, “but well-made zinfandel can be a wine that is so intriguing and moreish.”
Like most wines in the New World, zinfandel traces its origins to Europe and, specifically, to Italy, where it is known as primitivo, and also Croatia.
“With DNA testing it was declared that zinfandel is a long relative of a Croatian varietal called plavac mali,” says Ilic.
Broken Earth Pull Cabernet Merlot 2010
(Paso Robles, California)
A 50/50 blend of cabernet and merlot, this is made by Australian winemaker – and 2001 Jimmy Watson trophy winner for the Pepper Tree Reserve Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2000 – Chris Cameron. Aromas of blackcurrants and redcurrants, briar and dusty cedar oak (a character often associated with Coonawarra cabernet). It’s smooth in the mouth, with a nice structure of fine, chewy tannins and zippy acidity that keeps the bold, ripe flavours of cassis, vanilla and blackberry balanced.
Food match \ Lamb chops
Byron Pinot Noir 2010
(Santa Barbara County)
Bright perfume, with red and black cherry aromas mixed with strawberries, earth and spice. There’s a lick of vanilla, too. It’s a similar story in the mouth, with earthy beetroot and plum notes next to bold berry flavours. There’s not a lot of character to this, but it’s an impeccable pinot that speaks clearly of the varietal. Smooth, with bright acidity, its structure and fine-grained tannins are a real highlight. The finish is bright and intense; a good value wine.
Food match \ Roast chicken
Evesham Wood Eola-Amity Hills Pinot Noir 2010
(Willamette Valley, Oregon)
This was my favourite wine of the recent tasting at the US consulate. Only tiny amounts of this was made in 2010 – just 16 barrels – and we’re lucky to have wines like this available to us here. It’s beautifully perfumed, with delicate aromas of cherry, plum, grape stalks, violets and forest floor. The flavours are mirrored on a complex palate, with smooth texture and a delightful structure of bright acid and super-fine tannins.
Food match \ A wedge of ripe Brie de Meaux
Valley of the Moon Pinot Noir 2010
Under different guises, Valley of the Moon has operated as a winery since 1863. It was once owned by senator George Hearst, father of Wiliam Randolph Hearst of Hearst newspapers (and Hearst Castle) fame. It’s a bolder style of pinot noir, but no less interesting than fine-boned examples, with intense cherry, beetroot, earth, vanilla oak and spice. A smooth, alluring texture is balanced with savoury acid and powdery tannins. There’s a rich finish, too.
Food match \ Crumbed veal cutlets
Love a bargain?
Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Zinfandel 2009
(Mendocino County, California)
Kendall-Jackson is a massive producer (it’s also owner of the outstanding Yangarra Estate in McLaren Vale) and this comes from a single vineyard – one of the largest in the world. Spice, cherry, blackberry, raspberry and marzipan aromas lure you in before its rich raisin, plum, cherry, sweet vanilla oak flavours take over. It has a silky texture, with drying tannins and a lengthy finish of stewed plum and Christmas cake flavours. It’s exclusive to Dan Murphy’s.
Food match \ Pizza